Editor's note: Inc. Magazine announced its pick for Company of the Year on Tuesday, November 29. It's Riot Games! ​Here, we spotlight Wanderu, one of the contenders for the title in 2016.

In 2011, then 25-year-old Polina Raygorodskaya and a group of friends found themselves stranded in rural Virginia when, on a quest to make it to the West Coast without a car of their own, they tried to reserve bus tickets. Thanks to booking systems that still largely relied on printed schedules and paper tickets--and no knowledge of the local area--the gang was forced to rent a car, ruining their plans to make the trip via ride sharing.

This "failure," as the now 30-year-old Russian immigrant puts it, was in many ways a clarion call. Sure, Greyhound and Megabus (operated by Coach USA) are great in oft-traveled corridors like Washington, D.C., to New York City. But, as Raygorodskaya found, they fall short in lower-demand areas. What's more, there is no way to search a route between two cities if they are not served by a single carrier. Comparing routes and schedules--which are often on antiquated websites--is painstaking.

"It got myself and my co-founder really frustrated and obsessed with solving this problem," says Raygorodskaya. "We thought, 'You can find anything you want on the internet, but I can't figure out how to get from point A to point B using non-air transportation.'"

That's where Wanderu comes in, says Raygorodskaya. The ground transportation travel startup she co-founded in August 2013 works similarly to many other travel websites: Those with wanderlust can search bus and train tickets between any two cities in North America, and soon Europe, too.

Charting Course

But don't think for a second setting it up was easy. While airlines and hotels openly share data with sites like Expedia or Orbitz, Wanderu's team had to build this middle-layer technology with each partner, one by one.

Based in Boston, alongside travel giants like TripAdvisor and Kayak, the company has already attracted 35 million travelers who've booked tickets on the site. Currently Wanderu serves about 2.5 million users each month, says Raygorodskaya. And this year, it is set to reach $1 billion in partner ticket sales, out of which Wanderu takes a small percentage, costing no extra money to the customer. During the company's first two years of operation, its revenue grew 400 percent quarter-over-quarter. This year, it has logged a steady 100 percent growth each quarter.

That's helped with charming the likes of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. The Virgin founder is considering an investment in the company. Wanderu investors include former Greyhound CEO Craig Lentzsch, Shark Tank judge Barbara Corcoran, and former Orbitz chairman Jeff Clarke. The company has also won backing from PayPal's Media incubator lab.

Lentzsch, who saved Greyhound from bankruptcy, recalls an out-of-the-blue call from Raygorodskaya asking for assistance. "I was a little skeptical for about the first five minutes," says Lentzsch, who has advised Wanderu from the very beginning. "But after that, I was sold. This was something I knew the industry needed."

Bus Travel, Reimagined

The headache of intercity bus travel hasn't changed much in the United States for decades. Yet, of late, passenger trips on intercity bus lines have been on the rise--surging 36 percent from 2008 to 2015, according to DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Low fuel prices have given bus companies higher revenue to work with, researchers found, and they're using this extra income to focus on amenities.

Demographic shifts are also encouraging the growth in bus travel. "Millennials and young professionals are seriously and consistently looking for alternatives to using the single driver automobile," says Lentzsch. "That has brought the bus industry back into focus and is causing most of this growth."

Of course, not every trend line is pointing up. While bus is still by far one of the safest forms of transportation, several high-profile accidents have made headlines nationwide recently. Furthermore, political inaction is affecting transportation infrastructure across the country. Most notably, New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal--where most long-haul operators in the region are based--is crumbling and unable to handle current traffic loads.

Picking Up Speed

In 2013, Wanderu beat out hundreds of other startups to win South by Southwest's Innovative Web prize. These accolades landed it the chance to pitch Richard Branson himself. Within a year, Wanderu was serving the entire country and expanding by triple digits quarter over quarter.

That pace is likely to continue. This year, the company has hatched deals with Canada's Via Rail and several Mexican bus operators to serve all of North America. In the coming months, Wanderu also has plans to connect travelers with transit options across Europe, signing 160 operators already. These include the largest European rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, and the region's biggest bus provider, FlixBus.

"We've been very focused on a sustainable growth model where we're growing really fast but also reinvesting in the business and on track to profitability," says Raygorodskaya.

Published on: Nov 16, 2016